Here at TS4U, we were lucky enough to receive tickets to the premiere of ‘The Current War’ ahead of it’s UK release a week on Friday.
The film depicts the intense rivalry between the great American inventor Thomas Edison and entrepreneur George Westinghouse in their race to light up America and ultimately power the world. This epic period piece features Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon and Nicholas Hoult as Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla, respectively, with Tom Holland supporting as Samuel Insull, Edison’s ever loyal secretary.
Opening in 1879, immediately after Edison has perfected the 13-hour incandescent lightbulb, we are treated to a beautifully staged concentric circle of bulbs bursting into life thanks to Chung-Hoon Chung’s outstanding cinematography. We are presented with Edison standing at the centre of it all, a contented grin upon his face, awaiting the inevitable clamour of investment which ultimately comes from renowned financier J. P. Morgan.
DC vs. AC: The limitations
Financial backing in place, Edison manages to light up five Manhattan blocks, but Pittsburgh-based businessman George Westinghouse sees the limitations in Edison’s direct current (DC) technology. Edison proposed a system of small, local power plants that would power individual neighbourhoods or city sections. Power was distributed using three wires from the power plant; +110 volts, 0 volts, and -110 volts. Lights and motors could be connected between either the +110V or 110V socket and 0V (neutral). 110V allowed for some voltage drop between the plant and the load, but even though the voltage drop across the power lines was accounted for, power plants needed to be located within 1 mile of the end user. This limitation made power distribution in rural areas extremely difficult, if not impossible.
Switching from gas and co-opting some of Edison’s discoveries, Westinghouse began working successfully with alternating current (AC). Despite several setbacks, such as Edison suing over for the use of screw fittings on his Sawyer-Man incandescent bulbs (ultimately leading to the invention of what we now know as the bayonet fitting), Westinghouse persisted in trying to perfect the AC system. The one problem that eluded him was the construction of adequate motors and transformers capable of producing alternating current and stepping the voltage up or down as required.
Nikola Tesla and the bid to power the Chicago World’s Fair
Enter visionary engineer Nikola Tesla whose utter conviction in alternating current as a power source for the future put him in direct opposition to Edison’s belief in direct current. Having worked briefly with Edison, solving problems with both generators and the incompatibility of Edisons DC with the wildly popular Arc Lighting in streetlamps, Tesla struck out on his own, filing patents for revolutionary new polyphase AC motors and transformers. This serendipitous matching of minds, the shrewd industrialist and the genius visionary, led to one of the greatest partnerships of the industrial revolution. By acquiring Tesla’s patent rights, Westinghouse now had everything he needed to directly rival Edison’s Direct Current – Just in time to bid for the contract to light the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
How hydro-electricity changed the modern world
The rest, as they say, is history. The partnership between Tesla and Westinghouse led to one of the most world-changing inventions of the time; The hydro-electric power plant at Niagara falls. Tesla’s generators produced 50,000 horsepower, a staggering amount of power for the time, and when the switch was thrown, power was sent to Buffalo, New York. Over the coming year, thousands of residents and businesses ordered electricity. The number of generators increased to 10 and power flowed throughout New York City, electrifying Broadway, railways and subways alike. By 1920, 25% of all power in the US was hydro-electric. An interesting post script to the story is that Edison’s original power station continued supplying DC right up until November 2007, 125 years after going online.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon draws out stellar performances from Cumberbatch, Shannon and Hoult who brilliantly portray the trials and setbacks both sides suffered in the war of the currents. While sometimes humorous (Tesla is at one point told that nothing will ever bear his name again), the story is ultimately a touching and intriguing glimpse at what life was like at the forefront of the industrial revolution. For anyone with even a passing interest in the history of electricity, we think this is a must-see movie.
The Current War opens nationwide in cinemas on Friday 26th July.